When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. (Matthew 21.23-27)
So Jesus comes back to the scene of his outburst of anger on the previous day. The chief priests and the elders were waiting for him. They must have known that he would be back, that that was not his final word, not his final action. But they weren’t ready to arrest him, not just yet. So instead they ask him a question – about his authority, by what, by whose authority was he doing these things.
They felt challenged. He was only one man from out of town, not part of the hierarchy in any way, but he had disciples, fervant disciples and when he spoke people flocked to hear him. In response to their question Jesus then raises the name of someone else who challenged religious and national leaders, John the Baptist. John had gone through his own passion, his arrest, his imprisonment and then his martydom at the hands of Herod. That was still fresh in everyone’s memory, it had caused huge distress among Jesus’ own disciples many who had begun to follow him after they left following John (John 1.37)
The chief priests spotted the trap that Jesus had set for them. Whatever they answered about John would catch them out and so they back off and say ‘We do not know’.
In St Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples that they are to be ‘as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.’ (Matthew 10.16). It was good advice and we still need to listen to it and understand its implications. The church, Christians, are not apart from the world, they are part of the world. Whilst we don’t want to operate as the world so often operates, at the same time we can’t allow ourselves to be out manoeuvered by those who are more wiley and swift footed than we are. Spending as much time as I do in the City and in a whole variety of meetings I have to remind myself of the serpent and the dove. By inclination I am a dove but I can’t ignore the call to have something of the serpent in me as well.
In Jesus we see both – wisdom and innocence – the serpent and the dove. And as, in a few days we will see him standing before Pilate and before Herod, who had John beheaded, we will see his determination at work again but with subtlty and with power.
The famous prayer of St Francis of Assisi calls on us to be peace makers but we can only do this as Francis worked for the rebuilding if the church, with grit and determination.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.